The pancreas is a critical organ for digestion. It produces enzymes that help the body breakdown and process food. Inflammation of the pancreas occurs when those enzymes become active inside the organ. They irritate the cells there and cause them to become inflamed.
Over time, repeated or untreated inflammation can cause damage to the pancreas, and the condition becomes chronic. When the pancreas isn’t functioning correctly, it can trigger digestive problems and lead to diabetes.
Causes and Risk Factors
Although active enzymes within the organ are the cause of pancreatitis, there are many factors involved. For example, pancreatitis can run in families, indicating genetics may play a role. Other risk factors include cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and obesity.
Often, there is an underlying condition triggering the inflammation, too. For example, abdominal surgery can lead to pancreatitis, as can certain medications. A person with gallstones can develop this inflammation, also.
Other conditions associated with pancreatitis include:
- cystic fibrosis,
- hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels),
- hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels in the blood),
- abdominal trauma,
- infection, and
- pancreatic cancer.
Alcohol Consumption and Other Lifestyle Factors
Alcohol consumption is one of the leading factors in the development of pancreatitis. The acinar cells in the pancreas (the pancreas’s outward cells) metabolize alcohol. In the process, they create toxic byproducts that cause damage to the organ and the ducts. When this damage happens, the enzymes produced by the pancreas build up and start to digest tissue.
That damage promotes inflammation, which has the potential to cause even more damage. An estimated 80 grams of alcohol, about ten standard drinks, for six to 12 years can lead to chronic pancreatitis. The tolerable amount can vary from person to person, though. Other risk factors can reduce tolerance, too, such as poor diet, obesity, and smoking.